Rent-A-Cops. Troll patrol. Donut brigade. On college campuses across the country, university security officers are often derided as toothless counterparts to "real" cops, mostly concerned with closing down keggers and minimizing the number of public signs that get stolen each year.
But when the U.S. witnesses an event like the one on April 16 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the butts of freshman jokes become the focus of real concern. College students, parents and university staff have begun asking whether campus police are equipped and trained to handle serious crimes.
With so much still not known about what really took place when Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and then himself, experts understandably are in disagreement in their takes on what the incident says about campus security. But there's one thing they all agree on: Things are going to change.
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For a school of its size, there was nothing unusual about Virginia Tech's recent history of crime, according to FBI statistics. From 2003 to 2005, there were no murders, a handful of burglaries, robberies and assaults, and from seven to nine reported sexual assaults a year.
"Those numbers are very typical and very low," said former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir, now CEO and chairman of security firm SafirRosetti.
Virginia Tech's police force was deputized by the state of Virginia and was trained and treated as any other police force in the state—a privilege shared by many college forces throughout the country. At Princeton University, for example, about half of the campus security officers are sworn police officers who receive the same training as their municipal counterparts, according to Steven Healy, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and chief of police for Princeton University.
"There's no cookie-cutter model of campus safety plopped down in every institution," Healy said. "Each institution determines what their security will look like."
But early critics are already saying that Virginia Tech's response to the shootings is already revealing what many feared about college security.
"The police had no gun, they had no idea what had taken place. They should've gotten state and local police to cordon off the area, called local radio and TV stations, put a cop at each building. That's primitive law enforcement," said Steve Minshall, a sociopsychologist, security expert and former cop. “These campus police are nice guys, I have coffee with them sometimes, they do the job they should do, but they're not prepared for anything of this magnitude, by any means."
Ed Manzki, a Naperville, Ill., lawyer who won $1 million from Knox College for a family whose freshman daughter was murdered by a fellow student in a campus building, said that the bottom line for university boards seems to be protecting the school's image and income—not the students or staff.
"It's like an epidemic of crime on college campuses. It's something you don't hear about because people don't want to talk about it," he said. "When something's going to get cut from the budget, they're not going to cut athletics or academic programs. Oftentimes it's security programs that are the losers—and as a result the kids. When you're paying security guards like $8 to $11 an hour on a part-time basis, you can't expect to get the most qualified people."
"Most of the time they're trying to get away with the minimum security," said Craig Lawrence, director of operations for United Risk Partners, a security company in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
"It's one of two things. No. 1, they don't want to create a hostile environment, they want an open, liberal environment and are resistant to an open show of protection or force. The second train of thought is ignorance is bliss, and as long as they don’t' document their security vulnerabilities, they're not liable for it. Schools are vastly under-prepared for any emergency situations. Campus police forces are literally a symbol—somebody you could call to show they're doing something to protect students, but really a minimal deterrent," Lawrence said.
Healy said that it wasn't fair to paint all colleges and universities as irresponsible because of the occasional lapse.
"Are there universities that may not be as enlightened as others? That's probably true, but I wouldn't paint the educational society with that broad brush," he said. "Since Columbine, almost all university and colleges have spent time planning for an active-shooter situation. But I think that no single department, except a major-city department, is very equipped to deal with situations like this on their own without some dependence on partnering with county, state or, in some cases, federal departments."
And Ron Nief, director of public affairs for Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., said schools like his are already on top of possible situations like the Virginia Tech shootings.
"We always get asked, 'Are you doing anything special as a result of what happened there?'" Nief said. "No. Our men and woman are trained, they're prepared to act on an occasion like this. The system is there and it's in place, and it's a point like this that you act out what you've been practicing all the time."
But according to Safir, the sketchy news reports that the public has to rely on coming from Blacksburg, Va., seem to indicate that Virginia Tech was taken by surprise.
"It doesn't appear they had a contingency plan and reacted to the situation they had," he said. "It looks like they misinterpreted the facts. They had a double murder, no gun, no shooter, yet did not lock down the campus for over two hours. It didn't seem they had an emergency-response plan they had drilled and practiced on."
But most experts agreed that college campuses will change after Virginia Tech, adding warning systems and using technology to simultaneously send out mass messages to students' cell phones, landlines and multiple e-mail addresses. Before the shooting, Princeton had just purchased a pricey mass-notification system, Healy said. And Safir said that in the last 24 hours he's been flooded with calls from schools asking for advice on security upgrades.
"Just like 9/11, people will re-evaluate their emergency procedures and responses," said Dino Iuliano, vice president of operations for Planned Security Services of Parsippany, N.J. "Other campuses will look at this and say, 'Whoa, we never thought of that before.' They'll look at communications, evacuation processes. They'll say, 'This is where we could do better or tweak it.'"
But for every technological safety advance universities come up with, there's going be that age-old problem they'll always have to deal with, according to Nief.
"Ten years ago, we were bragging that every student had a phone in their room," he said. "They don't use them anymore—you have to call them in Miami to get them down the hall. We have e-mail, but now they block routine e-mails to the point we have to put signs up on the bulletin board to ask them to check their e-mail every day. You can't always plan ahead for an event like this."